PHILADELPHIA - "Today, in two of the greatest cities in the U.S, two of our country's greatest unions stand together and protest the move toward privatization and the continuing attempts to degrade our postal service!"
These were the words of President Frederic Rolando of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) to several hundred of his members just before they headed out to march through the streets of downtown here to the nearest Staples store. He was referring to the solidarity being shown between his union and the American Postal Workers Union, which had its own demonstration in downtown Chicago. The two unions held their respective conventions this week in Philadelphia and Chicago.
The NALC has over 7,500 delegates attending its 125th anniversary convention here through July 25. They are representing the unions roughly 290,000 members. This morning, in a poignant moment as part of the union's health and safety campaign, the delegates honored several of its members who had been seriously injured on the job, usually while working the mail in dangerous traffic conditions.
Delegates, who often emphasized their pride in being part of the largest organized workforce in the nation, told peoplesworld.org that they are concerned not just about the privatization threat and the threat to eliminate Saturday delivery but about the possibility of attempts to end door to door delivery service altogether.
The action at the Staples store here was one of hundreds of protests that have been taking place all across the country, protests that were triggered by the announcement last fall of a "sweetheart" deal between Staples and the United States Postal Service. The deal resulted in the establishment of mini-post offices in 82 Staples stores.
As the spirited demonstrators moved through the crowded rush hour streets, chants of "The U.S. mail is not for sale!" and "Donahoe has got to go!" echoed from buildings along the route. The second chant referred to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, who the unions see as pushing the Staples deal, a scheme they say that amounts to privatization of mail services.
Motorists stopped in traffic along the route frequently greeted the marchers by honking their horns in support and giving thumbs up signs.
Workers are demanding the firing of Donahoe because they see him using his position not to strengthen the U.S. Postal Service but, among other things, to privatize mail service by putting post offices in 82 Staples stores. These stores are staffed by Staples employees who often earn only the minimum wage, not by trained postal workers sworn to protect the mail. They also are angry about what they say is his refusal to fight service cuts, including attempts to end Saturday delivery of mail.
The announcement last fall of the no-bid "sweetheart" deal between Staples and the Postal Service triggered hundreds of demonstrations across the country at Staples stores that have continued right up to the national postal union conventions this week.
Many other national unions have gotten on board with the boycott. Delegates to the American Federation of Teachers convention in Los Angeles voted July 12 to join the boycott which has also been endorsed by the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the International Association of Firefighters.
The joining of the boycott by the AFT is considered particularly important. There are estimates that a teacher boycott of Staples could cost the chain $3.5 billion. The average teacher, according to the AFT, spends $1,000 a year on school supplies.
The unions charge that Staples, which initially opened the "postal counters" at the 82 stores, is using workers in high-turnover jobs to perform the difficult and sometimes high stress work of postal workers.
Rolando told the Philly marchers, "Staples aims to use untrained, low-wage, non-union workers to replace the regular postal craft workers." He explained, "We do not oppose the workers. We would support any efforts to organize them. But the USPS already has a well-trained workforce. The American people want and deserve a first class postal service network."
At the Staples store, Bill Lucini, the union's national business agent for the Philadelphia region (Region 12), delivered petitions with thousands of signatures stating that the union would continue to urge a boycott of Staples as long as the chain is in contract to perform any work that should be done by postal workers.
Postal workers have been warning that an announcement by Staples on July 7 that it was phasing out its no-bid deal with the USPS was made out of concern for the effect of the boycott, not because it really intended to end its privatization deal with USPS.
Lucini, the Philly business agent for NALC, said that Staples is continuing to perform shipping work normally done by USPS postal workers.
Mark Dimondstein, president of the APWU, said, only a day after the announcement, that it was a "ruse" aimed at derailing the boycott.
Photo: NALC members marching in Philly. Ben Sears/PW